The doorbell rings, and we stiffen.
It is an ordinary morning at home in Mumbai. I’m getting ready for work, R has already started typing on his laptop, and we’re discussing how we’re going to coordinate our schedule to get to where we’re putting on a comedy show that night at 7 p.m. . When we hear the bell, we give each other a “Did you order something?” ” see. No, we didn’t. So who was ringing at 8 o’clock?
R and I moved in together a few months ago. We had found a small apartment in a quiet and peaceful location and were paying more rent than the apartment deserved. It sounds like every Bombay story, I know. What is also like every story in Bombay is that we really struggled to find an apartment.
We were not married and we were working freelance. We had a pretty tight budget. We had exactly a month to figure it all out, or at least one of us would be homeless. We had somehow convinced the former owner of R to give us one of his apartments – he liked to think of himself as a progressive and hadn’t flinched at the “live” situation.
The secretary of the construction company, however, didn’t like the word progressive. Somehow we had convinced him that the wedding was in December of that year (shubh mahurat and all that) and got the house. But we still felt anxious every time the doorbell rang. Was the music too loud? Had they seen our friend leave at 4 in the morning? Were they checking how the preparation for the wedding was going?
I opened the door. The building’s uncle was standing, twirling his white mustache, the frown so permanent that the folds were part of his face.
“Aap log billi ko khilate ho?he growled.
Hello to you too, uncle. And what while?
“Yahaan billi kyu aata hai? Aap khilate ho?He asked again.
I peeked outside. There was no bill. Of course, a cat would often sunbathe in the company garden and like to rub against R – but no, it wasn’t near our door, and no, we hadn’t fed it, either. not?
“Um kabhi kabhi paani dete hai,” R. conceded. I stared at him – why would he admit it, ugh? In my head, which is all about the ends, we’re going to be kicked out of the house now. This very moment, in fact. The building’s uncle had probably rang the bell because it was all a big plot, and he definitely had the police backing him up.
As I spiral in my imagination, R glares back at me. Mumbai’s summers have been excruciatingly hot, and he was caring enough to leave water for the cat every day. R is empathetic like that and very kind. I am the one who has the instinct for self-preservation in this relationship.
The uncle is not impressed either. Obviously, cuteness isn’t something he looks for in young men or potential renters. He is more concerned with how much these young men earn and how much they would be willing to donate to the Building Ganpati Puja Fund. R is nice there too. I don’t want any trouble there either.
“Paani mat do,” he said at last. “Billi roz aayega. Woh pot karega toh kaun saaf karega? he asks before storming off, muttering under his breath.
The cat literally lives in the small garden within the construction company! I guess some families feed him and others pet him, and if he’s potty in the company compound, someone cleans him. Why do we only have to bear the brunt of Building Uncle’s wrath?
But we don’t leave any more water out for the cat. It is not a battle we can afford to wage at the moment.
Living as an unmarried couple has made us compromise on all kinds of things. Living in building societies that don’t encourage (or just aren’t kind to) animals is one of them.
This is what you get for not following conventional standards in this country.
That doesn’t mean that I’ve always loved cats and wanted one since I was a kid, or that I had a lot of cats growing up. In fact, far from it. A regular lover of Enid Blyton stories, my fondness for dogs grows with every story I read of Timmy and Scamper and Buster and my favorite, Loony. Kiki even made me consider buying birds, and Bill and Clarissa’s love for horses had also put me through a delicate phase of appreciating horses, but not cats.
The only cats I have ever loved were Macavity and Gus and that too, at the age of sixteen, when I first discovered Eliot. In my childhood fantasies, I imagined growing up, having lots of friends and lots of dogs. The cats were visibly absent. A little weird, really, since my first friend was a cat.
One of my earliest childhood memories, one that I can perfectly imagine in my head, perhaps because it repeated itself so often growing up, was of a stray cat that appeared every day for lunch. Moturam was what the home helper, Mashi, called – it was either a reference to his height, which I can’t remember, or a reference to how he waited while I sat in my chair high feeding me rice. and fish. Leftovers and fish bones went to Moturam.
I was a lonely kid – there weren’t any kids my age in the neighborhood, and Moturam was my first friend, friends like only people who share food are. Mashi, who had a vivid imagination, would tell stories about Moturam’s life, while I ate – a new adventure every day.
Moturam in search of food, Moturam with his friends, Moturam defeating all the rogue dogs in the street with his courage and grace. At night, if we heard cats moaning, Mashi would say See, Moturam fights again or See, Moturam came to say goodnight to us, if she desperately needed me to fall asleep.
Moturam has had an enchanted life; years later when I read Old Possum’s Book of Cats, so many reminded me of the stories of Moturam. Moturam taught me to share food; Moturam was one of the first stories I fell in love with. Yet as I got older and created my own world of imaginary friends and imaginary dogs, I had no Moturam equivalent. For a long time, the only cat I knew and loved was Moturam.
Many years later R and I were asked to save the cat for friends. I didn’t know anything about cats, neither did R, but his innate cuteness somehow won over the otherwise cranky cat. As we snuggled up on the sofa, the cat found a way to join us. Left without his humans and clearly suffering from abandonment issues, he followed us into the bedroom at night and perched comfortably on my bedside table.
He watched with wide eyes as we undressed and stroked each other, never taking his eyes off us as we kissed. The lights were out, but I could feel his penetrating gaze. “It’s a kitten!” I cried over R. “It’s like kissing in front of a kid. We should stop.
R froze. We huddled together, hoping the cat would go away or fall asleep or at least look away. This is not the case. Much later, when we’re sure we’re not going to be able to kiss more that night, and I fall asleep with our clothes still tangled at the foot of the bed, I feel the idiot-cat jump on me .
Extracted with permission from Cat people, edited by Devapriya Roy, Simon & Schuster India.